Criterion Sunday 529: Underworld (1927)

Josef von Sternberg’s silent crime movie is generally considered to be the one that laid in place a lot of the tropes that would persist (and continue to do so) in gangster films over the years. We have the gregarious mobster “Bull Weed” (George Bancroft) who shows pity on the alcoholic “Rolls Royce” (Clive Brook), helping him to clean up and work again as a lawyer, in which role he’s able to help Bull while also getting close to Bull’s girl “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent), a classic three-way love story that motivates the divided loyalties of the film’s climactic shoot-out with police (because there’s always got to be a shoot-out). Despite being pre-Code, there are still strong moral lessons that bad guys need to learn, but the film keeps what now comes across as pretty hackneyed content relatively fresh. The camera doesn’t move too much, but somehow the film gives the impression of a whirl of action and movement, with pools of murky darkness befitting the setting. In short, it still holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers Ben Hecht, Charles Furthman and Robert N. Lee; Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Clive Brook, Evelyn Brent, George Bancroft; Length 81 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 21 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Global Cinema 34: Chad – Grigris (2013)

Not ostensibly a major player in world cinema, Chad is probably the African country I’ve seen more films from, solely due to the work of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who has carved out a distinctive an ongoing voice for himself representing the country. Works like Daratt and A Screaming Man made his name, and he’s also made work in France (with 2017’s A Season in France). His latest film was made last year, Lingui: The Sacred Bonds (set again in his native country).


Flag - ChadRepublic of Chad (جمهورية تشاد aka République du Tchad)
population 16,245,000 | capital N’Djamena (951k) | largest cities N’Djamena, Moundou (137k), Abéché (98k), Sarh (97k), Kélo (58k) | area 1,284,000 km2 | religion Islam (52%), Christianity (44%) | official language Arabic (اَلْعَرَبِيَّةُ), French (français) | major ethnicity Sara (27%), Arab (13%), Kanembu (9%) | currency Central African CFA franc (FCFA) [XAF] | internet .td

A country which stretches from the arid Saharan north, through an arid Sahel belt in the centre to fertile savannah in the south. It is indeed named after the lake which is the second-largest wetland on the continent (though may have shrunk by up to 95% between the 1960s and 1990s), itself named from a Kanuri word meaning “large expanse of water”. Some of the most important archaeological sites are located in Chad and habitation became denser from the 7th millennium BCE. As a crossroad of civlisations, the earliest known were the Sao, but the Kanem Empire took over around 800 CE and lasted the longest, though the Bagirmi and Wadai emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries, and each raided for slaves from the south. French colonial expansion took hold in the late-19th century and by 1920 they had taken it in as a colony, part of French Equatorial Africa (with what are now CAR, the Republic of Congo and Gabon). Even compared with their other colonies, modernisation was slow and education was neglected, as France treated it merely as a source of cheap labour for the cotton industry. After WW2 it became an overseas territory and had an assembly, in which the largest party was the PPT (Chadian Progressive Party), and upon independence on 11 August 1960, the leader of the PPT became the first Prime Minister, François Tombalbaye. His autocratic rule sparked a northern insurgency and civil war, with Hissène Habry taking the capital in 1979 (several years after the deposition of Tombalbaye). Libya tried to use the fragile balance of power to take control (in the so-called Toyota War), but were repelled in 1987. Habré consolidated his dictatorship but was overthrown by his deputy Idriss Déby in 1990 (both died in 2021, the former from COVID while imprisoned in Senegal for war crimes, the latter in combat while fighting an insurgency). A transitional military government under his son Mahamat Déby is currently in power.

As a country blighted by civil wars and insurgencies, as well as chronic underinvestment while a colony of France, understandably cinema has not progressed quickly in the country. The first film made there appears to have been a 1958 John Huston film, and the earliest indigenous work documentary short films made by Edouard Sailly in the 1960s. The few cinemas which existed closed down due to civil war, but some stabilisation post-1990 allowed filmmakers like Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (the country’s best-known internationally) and Issa Serge Coelo to make a name. As of 2011, there is apparently only a single cinema in the country.


Grigris (2013)

This is a stylish film from a director who has very much proved himself in his filmmaking, but it’s also one that is truly built around a riveting central performance (in this case from Souleymane Démé). The title character is a studio photographer by day (his dad’s trade) and a dancer in nightclubs by night. He loves the dancing, and even though his legs are paralysed, he makes such effective and spectacular use of them in his dance routines, but it’s a not a film about overcoming physical limitations, it’s about what happens when you need to make choices beyond your control. He falls in with some dodgy guys and ends up doing a bit of smuggling to make money and that’s when things start to unravel a bit. It all moves at a deliberate, slow pace but it’s never unclear about what’s going on or who’s motivated by what, and it all ends in a spectacular scene that I shan’t go into obviously but, well, just don’t mess with village women in Chad I guess.

Grigris (2013)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون; Cinematographer Antoine Héberlé; Starring Souleymane Démé, Mariam Monory; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 493: Gomorra (Gomorrah, 2008)

This film about the Camorra, a criminal organisation operating around Naples and Campania, harks back to those films so popular in the 1990s, in which multiple different strands cohere into a full narrative picture. There’s not much in the way of overlap in terms of the characters between these five stories, but together they give a sense of the grunt work involved in propping up the business interests of a gang. There’s the expendability of the foot soldiers, especially when they become damaging to the organisation, but also the limitless resource of workers disaffected through poverty and urban alienation; there’s the middle managers, guys just trying to keep their heads down and get by but who nevertheless get dragged into violence and revenge; and then there are the artisans (like the tailor Pasquale) who have little interest in the vested interests, but cannot help but be pulled in and affected by the control wielded by those with power. We don’t see any kind of coherent power structure, just a bunch of loud older guys with guns in the background, and a lot of meek and young people up front in this film, which ultimately seems to be about the corrosive effects of corrupt government and poverty leading to few available choices for its protagonists. And for all its multiple strands, it manages to cohere nicely by the end with a lot of small character-based touches that deepen the film’s interest and reach.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Matteo Garrone; Writers Garrone, Roberto Saviano, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio and Massimo Gaudioso (based on Saviano’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Marco Onorato; Starring Gianfelice Imparato, Salvatore Cantalupo, Toni Servillo, Salvatore Abbruzzese, Marco Maror, Ciro Petrone; Length 137 minutes.

Seen at the Ritzy, London, Friday 24 October 2008 (and on DVD at home, Wellington, Thursday 30 December 2021).

Criterion Sunday 472: 豚と軍艦 Buta to Gunkan (Pigs and Battleships, 1961)

I watched this a few days ago and already I’m struggling to piece together the plot; reading up on it on Wikipedia, I realise there’s a lot, possibly more than I took in while watching it. But that’s in the nature of Shohei Imamura’s budding style — it’s both possible to see how it might have stood out in Japanese post-war cinema, but also it can be quite tiring watching the action flick here and there incessantly. At the heart of the story though is the young, somewhat foolish wannabe gangster Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato). He gets swept up into the game, much to the disgust of his dad, while meanwhile his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) has few enough choices of her own either. So it’s a film not just about Japan in the aftermath of WW2, but it also wraps up an unequal class system too, affected by the colonising Americans, whose capitalism this whole gangster lifestyle seems to be cribbing from. There’s a lot going on, and maybe a rewatch is in order to keep it all straight, though I imagine I’d still find myself a bit lost, not unlike Kinta.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writer Hisashi Yamanouchi 山内久; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Hiroyuki Nagato 長門裕之, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 4 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 469: The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears directed his first movie at the start of the 70s and then spent most of the next decade working in TV, though this is the era when Ken Loach and Alan Clarke were creating distinctive visions on the small screen, so by the time Frears returns with The Hit, you can’t really accuse him of not having some style. It’s set in Spain, so it doesn’t lack for beautiful light and arresting backdrops; at times Frears seems to be going maybe even a little bit too hard on the quiet, empty shots of these locales, though he matches it with striking framings (such as an unexpected overhead shot during one tense encounter). Still, there’s a lot that feels very 80s here, and it’s not just Tim Roth being a young hard man (not as fascist as in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, perhaps, but still a thug) but also some of the patronising attitudes (towards women, for example, or the Spaniards they encounter). Of course, that’s as much to do with the characters, who are after all small time criminals. Terence Stamp isn’t a million miles from Ray Winstone’s retired criminal in Sexy Beast, a man who may be retired but is aware he’s never going to be fully out of the racket, and when John Hurt pops up to carry out the titular action, he puts across a weary indefatigability. Ultimately this is a strange blend of genres, with black comedic elements and a strong road movie vibe (a saturated Spanish version of what Chris Petit or Wim Wenders were doing in monochrome, perhaps). I admire it more than I love it, but it has its moments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stephen Frears; Writer Peter Prince; Cinematographer Mike Molloy; Starring Terence Stamp, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura del Sol; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 11 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 448: Le Deuxième souffle (1966)

The year before Le Samouraï and Melville’s last film in black-and-white. They may all be wearing trenchcoats and being laconic in both films, but it’s incredible the way this feels like another era, a holdover from the 40s. There’s something almost Bressonian in the way that the early scenes unfold (though that’s perhaps no surprise given it’s a prison break): no music, just people going through the motions, wordlessly and almost like a dream. Gu (short for Gustave, and played by Lino Ventura, a stocky stand-by of the gangster film since Touchez pas au grisbi) has just broken out of jail and is now looking to retire, but — as is the way — is sucked back into one last job. How badly could it go? Have you ever watched a movie? You know how badly it could go. For all that, Melville is clearly starting to strip back his style, such that the trenchcoats and the hats, the Gallic sangfroid, the guns and the gangsters, the deep expressionist shadows of the film noir genre, all of these things seem to hold more depth in them than the plot itself, though it’s all very well done, and by this point in his career Ventura has an iconic energy that is perfectly channelled here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel by José Giovanni); Cinematographer Marcel Combes; Starring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Raymond Pellegrin, Christine Fabréga; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 9 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 447: Le Doulos (aka The Finger Man, 1962)

I do love a Jean-Pierre Melville gangster flick, but you get to see enough of them that sometimes they just don’t make much of an impact. Sure, there are the trenchcoats, the hats, the moody expressionist lighting picking out figures from the darkness, the sense of noirish desperation amongst these small-time gangsters, and then there’s Belmondo, still fairly fresh off Breathless, still just a little too pretty to be a tough guy (though he can be pretty nasty). Then again I think he grew into his minimalist gangster films, and this one still has one foot in that old world tradition, the one that informed Bob le flambeur, of guys in rooms and shady dealings and an interest in the relationships between them rather than just the brute fact of a gun, a girl, a double-cross, a murder: the elements that Godard stripped his first film down to. Already there’s this sense of these generic trappings, the guys in coats passing across the frame, and I think it’s something that Melville hones in on, and perhaps I’m just being unfair here, but it’s the kind of piece that I can’t genuinely remember if I’ve seen it before, but it feels like the kind of thing I might have watched once.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel by Pierre Lesou); Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 6 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 434: Classe tous risques (aka The Big Risk, 1960)

If there’s one thing I can credit the Criterion Collection with introducing me to, it’s the whole gamut of French policiers and gangster films of the 1950s and 60s especially. Sure, I’d seen maybe a Melville, but now I feel like I’m starting to get through a lot of them, and this early feature by Claude Sautet, which has become somewhat overshadowed in film history by the contemporary work by the Nouvelle Vague, very much fits into the Melvillean tradition, if not being itself a source of influence for Melville as he went more abstractly noirish throughout the decade. It has the laconic soul of a western in the way this big guy gangster Abel (Lino Ventura) communicates through body language and scowls. He’s on the run for a heist that’s netted far less than expected, and the trail of cops leads to death, which is particularly difficult for Abel as he has two small kids to protect. There’s a whole world between these characters that we already have a sense of, even before they speak, and when a young kid helps Abel out (Belmondo, fresh from Breathless), there’s an extra frisson of concern because Abel doesn’t know him and worries he’s being set up. Of course there’s paranoia and fear, but mostly there’s just an easy sense of being amongst shifty guys all of whose futures are looking pretty bleak.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Sautet; Writers Sautet, Pascal Jardin and José Giovanni (based on Giovanni’s novel); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sandra Milo, Marcel Dalio, Claude Cerval, Michel Ardan; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 28 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 428: Blast of Silence (1961)

A pretty taut and bleak film noir which distils a lot of the generic conventions down to the kind of format in which they’d be parodied for generations to come: the hard-boiled voiceover, the heavy sense of existential angst, the bleak futility of all actions, the duplicity of men (and women), all exemplified by a heavy-set tough guy. In this film, the tough guy is played by the director and this is all firmly in the finest low-budget moulds, with plenty of location shooting in New York City, including a climactic pursuit filmed during a hurricane, which certainly helps with the sense of overcast threat. The whole film has a great sense of place, and a deft way with moving its hero through the plot in such a way as to maintain momentum even as we know, right from the start, that he is surely and certainly doomed.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Allen Baron; Cinematographer Merrill Brody; Starring Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy; Length 77 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 421: Pierrot le Fou (1965)

I’ve always had this film pinned in my head — having seen it a couple of times 20 years ago — as one that’s fun, and rewatching it again, it is, mostly. I feel like I should mention right up-front that there’s a rather hideously racist interlude with Anna Karina in a painted yellow face making some mock-Vietnamese noises, and even if it’s intended to be part of an anti-American satirical rehashing of the conflict in Vietnam, it can’t help but disrupt the film’s tone. Which is otherwise, as mentioned above, pretty playful. It builds on the saturated sun-drenched coastal resort colours of Le Mépris, and sets up some of the apocalyptic imagery that was to come in Godard’s career (in Week End, most notably), as his two criminal-lovers on the run rehearse a sort of Bonnie & Clyde script with a metatextual commentary and little asides to camera, but Godard never repeats the same trick twice, making it feel even a little exhausting at times, as things head towards their colourfully bleak ending. The deeper socio-political dimensions are more evident in some of his other films, but Godard was always most playful about genre and film itself, creating his own playbook of self-referentiality, than about empathy for people’s lives in the world (which may explain the yellowface). Certainly these characters never quite feel like much more than an author’s conceits, but Anna Karina (and Belmondo too, in his way) has an ever-likeable charm that suggests more than the film sometimes does.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Friday 10 September 1999 (before that on VHS at the university, Wellington, February 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Wednesday 28 April 2021).